Thinking Small at NAIS 2018 Annual Conference

Those big, national conferences can feel like a pie-in-the-sky aspiration for a small school. It's hard to budget for, raise funds, or find the time to attend the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference. I understand the challenges and excuses, but by attending, your school leadership can gain invaluable information and a critical perspective. It's worth it. And to help you make the 2019 conference a priority, here's my take on some of the most valuable reasons for small school leaders to attend:

Legal Issues.

The conference attracts some of the best and brightest legal minds practicing in the independent school space. Legal advice of that caliber may be out of reach for many small schools, and the attorneys bring issues to light that might not be on a small school’s radar. Suzanne Bogdan of Fisher Phillips presented with the leadership team from The Shipley School on ADA compliance within the admissions process. To quote Steve Piltch, Head of School, “Ignorance of the law is not a defense strategy.”

Michael Blacher of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore and Susan Schorr of McLane Middleton presented on a range of “Local and National Legal Trends to Follow or Avoid.” The pair highlighted seven issues that can be triggers for legal action: Gender Identity, Medical Marijuana, Employee References, Sexting, Student Travel Waivers, Arbitration Agreements, and Transparency and Discipline. It is essential for small schools to know the currently litigated issues and to seek legal advice locally to ensure that we protect our students and the institution.

Strategic Vision.

Strategic is an exciting word. All at once it conveys strength and confidence and gives no hint at the actual meaning without context. All schools want to be strategic, but small schools can benefit immeasurably from an outside, global perspective. Kathy Pearson, with her Wharton credentials, impressive list of consulting clients, and stand-up worthy sense of humor, told us to “test and learn,” as opposed to blatantly embrace failure as a means toward growth. She told leaders to encourage staff to come to them with problems and to encourage a “productive paranoia,” to be aware of early indicators of competitive change in the educational landscape.

Corporate Culture.

Schools don’t like to think they have a corporate culture. Those words don't feel congruent to the ways that teachers work together to educate children. But, each school does have a culture and understanding it and perhaps working to improve it can only benefit each administrator and student. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, TED presenter, and Ivy League professor inspired the nearly 4,500 participants to think about our staff as Givers, Takers, or Matchers. Dr. Grant outlined how to encourage motivation, trust, and collaboration between all staff members and students, not just from the apparent Givers among us.

Support from Peers.

Small school leaders may find themselves swimming in a sea of large schools without peers to discuss ideas and challenges scaled to the unique perspective of a small school. Along with my colleagues on the National Small Schools Conference (NSSC) steering committee, I organized two dinner meet-ups to encourage the NAISAC participants from small schools to come together for food, drink, and comradery.  Liz Dover Baker, Head of School for The GreenMount School, and George Zeleznik, Head of School for The Crefeld School told me that they attend NAISAC each year for both the access to potentially cost prohibitive, top-level consultants and attorneys, as well as the opportunity to network with fellow heads of school. Both Liz and George are grateful for the recent conference discount implemented by NAIS for schools with an operating budget of under $3M. Contact NAIS membership for more information.

One of the most delightful aspects of the conference is the Pecha Kucha sessions. Teachers or administrators give a presentation of 20 slides of 20 seconds each on a topic near and dear.  Tashon McKeithan of The Center for Early Education gave a talk titled, "Ish: Breaking Through the Binary," about gender inclusivity. Her talk brought me to tears.  David Cutler of Brimmer and May School talked of the importance of teacher blogging and reaching out to experts for guidance and encouragement. David shared with me about his nervousness to present. Kudos to NAIS for offering these opportunities for school leaders to stretch themselves and share meaningful experiences with the educational community.

For small school leaders interested in a conference specifically designed for the unique strengths and challenges of schools with an enrollment of 250 or under, the NSSC will be June 25-27, 2018 in Philadelphia, PA.

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